Musings On Photography

Art World Talk: On The Impenetrability of Art Language

So, I had a thought the other day while I was writing an exceptionally lengthy and tiring job application (for a position I didn’t get). As often happens when you’re engaged in an exceptionally lengthy and tiring task (see above), your mind has occasion to drift a little. So I went along with the drift and started looking at a photography research centre’s website and blog. 

When I was reading it it occurred to me that the language I was visually consuming was so impenetrable that I wanted to stop reading. With a vengeance. And I’ve been immersed in the nonsense language that calls itself academic vernacular (there I go again) so I’m familiar with the warning signs.

Just so you can prep your own eyes, this issue of TFG is a little more text dense than usual and has practically no pictures. I won’t blame you if you skip…

Initial Thoughts

I had a little review of my inaugural post. And boy-oh-boy was it crammed with academic expletives and historical buzzwords. Which was NOT my aim when I was setting up TFG. In a way it was possibly a bad idea to kick things off by adapting an academic paper for the interweb. Reading it again it reminded me of the early postgrad days when I sacrificed substance for the sake of style. And my writing wasn’t even that stylish. Language should be simple and concepts transferred elegantly, which is what I’m aiming to prove with TFG. (In case I hadn’t mis la puce a l’oreille already, TFG is The Frailest Gesture.)

If you want to criticise my language, blame them?

Skip to now and you’re reading this thinking, Naomi, You Claim To Want To Write Simply And With Clarity But Your Language Is Antiquated And Over-The-Top. To which I respond, Let Me Explain. I read or have read a certain amount of Orwell, Greene, and I recently became quite enamoured with Patrick Hamilton, and so the characteristics of this elegant prose have rather rubbed off on me. Which is no bad thing if you’ve ever read any of the above’s work. But it might appear to someone else’s eye that I’m a terrible middle-class ponce with airs-and-graces.

Not true. Except possibly the middle-class bit.

Art Language

I suppose the point of this blog (I HATE THAT WORD) was to bring ideas about photography and theory and the art market to an artistically-less-travelled audience. One that hadn’t come up through the dense forests of Barthes and Sekula. Or Jeff Wall (how do I insert a screaming emoji here?). An excellent example of what I mean by impenetrability is the following. It’s not from my realm but it shows how pervasive the style is.

“The move from a structuralist account, in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure and marked a shift from a form of althusserean theory that takes structural identity as theoretical objects to one in which the insights in the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up by with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Judith Butler [1]

That is one sentence. It takes 30 seconds to read and exactly one million hours to understand. 

Let’s Take a Breather

Do you remember the episode of Friends where Joey writes a letter for Chandler and Monica in support of their adoption? The sentence that started out life as:

They’re warm, nice people with big hearts

Joey Tribbiani

became…

They’re humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.

Joey Tribbiani After He Ate The Thesaurus

The USP (Undeniable Self-Immolation Point)

So how can it be identified?

Rule and Levine analysed the syntax and lexis of these press releases and discovered a distinctive vocabulary. An artist’s work, they say, inevitably, ‘interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces.’ [2] ‘Imbricate’ was a new one for me. This is not a normal use of English, the language is used almost against itself and so a new language is formed. Words are interchangeable and used in unexpected contexts.

As far as syntax is concerned, IAE prefers to subvert even grammar in its quest for linguistic opacity. Adverbial phrases and and double adverbial terms are eminently popular in press releases. There is also a significant reliance on dependent clauses, which are followed up with more, not fewer, equally dependent clauses. And because I had to look up what a dependent clause is (don’t why I couldn’t just work it out from context) it’s this: “a group of words with a subject and verb. It does not express a complete thought so it is not a sentence and can’t stand alone.” I italicised it for emphasis.

I selected a couple of choice quotes from press releases that I think encapsulate the qualities of IAE almost perfectly:

“A visual poet whose drawings, prints, photographs and films juxtapose word and image, XXXXX’s multimedia practice embraces text, photography, video, song, performance and printmaking, and is motivated by her commitment to questioning mainstream historical narratives around blackness, womanhood, wealth, power, poverty and vulnerability.

Whitechapel Gallery [3]

Or this:

The comingling of ancient and contemporary exhibits will illustrate how the human need to impose order on a seemingly unruly universe produced ancient mythological creatures and sustains the animist beliefs that dominate systems of belief in Africa, South East Asia and Central and South America today.

Whitechapel Gallery [4]

And then there’s a snippet like this:

…fusing pragmatism with poetry to illuminate lost histories.

Whitechapel Gallery [5]

Of course this doesn’t apply so much to museum shows because they know the audience contains a broad variety of regular museum-goers, casual art enthusiasts, serious art enthusiasts, students and general passers-by. The gallery exists to sell artwork. The museum exists to educate you about artwork. But when you go to a museum exhibition you have a different series of issues with which to contend, namely the crowds, lack of circulating air and aching shoulders and necks from carrying bags and craning to see the text panels.

Rule and Levine point out that, when we sense ourselves to be in close proximity to things of a serious and artistic nature, we apparently edge towards subordinate clauses. How did this come about? The translation from French (or German) to English. Read below…

Belle Lettrisme

In their research, it was the American tradition of art criticism that collided with “continental philosophy” to create this new form of art criticism. [6] The fashionably incomprehensible and intense journal October was the source of this nascent language. According to Rule and Levine, October editors like art historians Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, “saw contemporary criticism as essentially slovenly and belle lettristic; they sought more rigorous interpretive criteria, which led them to translate and introduce to an English-speaking audience many French poststructuralist texts.” [7]

“IAE conveys the sense of political tragedy: everything is straining as hard as it can be to be radical in a context where agency is perennially fucked, forever, for everyone. Art must, by lexical design, ‘interrogate’ and ‘problematize’ and ‘blur boundaries’ and even ‘highlight blurred boundaries’.”

Canopy [8]

It was this shift in criticism that changed the way writing about art sounded. Krauss and others translated French philosophers like Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze for October and wrote in a manner that seemed to emulate those very translations. As Rule and Levine point out, “A number of them were French and German, so presumably translated themselves in real time.” [9] This inorganic language is the start of a cycle within the space of artistic creation (there I go with ‘space’). Because, as Rule and Levine quite accurately remark, as soon as the artists start to make work that is expressed in these terms – art that “interrogates the space in which it is created” for example – those statements do eventually become true.

The Language Mafia

It’s not a surprise to state that groups rely on something that unites them. The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are united by multiple concepts, including dress and language. The adherents of some Hasidic courts (Toldot Aharon, for example) refuse to speak Hebrew and only converse in Yiddish. This decision unites them as a collective and makes them distinctive in comparison with other Hasidim. It’s a unique language and they decide to belong to the specific set by speaking it. Of course there are other factors but language is a very obvious one.

In the same way that the existence of a photograph implies, “I decided that seeing this is worth recording”  so the use of IAE determines its speaker as someone worth listening to. [10]

By using IAE the speaker hopes to place himself within the art aristocracy. The artistocracy. Because if you use a very specialised language you can expect it to be understood by a very specialised crowd, and that crowd will identify you as belonging to the set. It unites but it also excludes; if you use it, you understand it, if you don’t use it, well…

Artists Have A Go

It wasn’t really so much a response to IAE as the precursor to the criticism of art text in press releases. A handful of artists belonging to the artist collective BANK decided to stay abreast of art world topics by reading press releases. The group consisted of Simon Bedwell, John Russell and Milly Thompson. What resulted from this attempt to stay au courant was a series of corrected press releases that they then faxed back (“FAX-BAK”) to the originating galleries with a score out of 10. Instead of making the obvious decision to strike out every attempt at pretentious theorising, they quite forcefully took the opposite route and suggested ways to obfuscate the meaning even further.

THE BANK, The Fax-Bak Service: Helping You Help Yourselves!, 1998 [11]

The point of this piece of art in itself is to identify the misleading language and textual structure that gallery press releases put out. The artists identified Stephen Friedman Gallery’s frequent recourse to opposites in describing an artist’s work:

at once appealing and disconcerting – your press releases always use these opposites eg: “this work is black and white” or “this work is both serious and frivolous”. This technique just means you have nothing to say about the work

BANK, Fax-Bak Service, Stephen Friedman Gallery Press Release [12]

And it’s very clever. They took the original nonsense press release and emphasised its daftness by suggesting even more ridiculous ways to obscure the meaning of the art it was attempting to describe. Obviously October was the major influencer and in 1998 e-flux was only just breaking forth so The BANK’s decision to show up the art world’s manner of communicating on their artists was subtly avant-garde. And obviously quite sarcastic.

In a way I see the series of edited press releases created by The BANK as a strong indictment of the art world’s reluctance to let itself feel emotion. Everything is expressed in harsh terms and buzzwords that convey so little of the artist’s intention and aim more to market the artist and their work to a broader, global audience. Obviously the art world exists to sell work and the best way it can accomplish that is through the Language of The Sell. Usually the Hard Sell. As far as press releases go it just seems as though there’s space for a little more emotion. After all, the galleries will already have contacted major buyers in advance of any artist show to cement their interest so the press release acts like the press conference after a major global meeting; all the important decisions and terms have been decided in advance, this is just for optics.

The Art World Replies

In case you wondered why the art world hadn’t responded, it had. I found a response to Rule and Levine’s research written by Martha Rosler and it is so long. Even by my standards. I lost the will to continue reading it about one paragraph in and, in true millennial fashion (although I’m clearly about 7 years shy of justifying that particular nomenclature) skipped straight to the end to find this:

While junior Simplified Art Copy writers may be guilty of unwittingly assembling pretentious lofty verbal concatenations, that sad symptom hardly serves to discredit the entire field.

Martha Rosler, English and All That [13]

Which I understood to mean that this complex lingo is being inelegantly diffused into the art world by unqualified (read: non-English) speakers. But the point is that these “junior Simplified Art Copy writers” had to have found this language somewhere. They can’t all have invented it. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that they were brought up on language such as this through their respective degree programmes where they learned, among other things, to speak in the ways of great theorists: Derrida, Foucault, Lacan. They then entered the art world, discovered that it was cutthroat and realised they had to I was going to add Baudrillard, but I have a soft spot for him and I want to dedicate a full issue to his work because it’s not as bonkers as it initially appears.

Something I found interesting was Rosler’s (natural) insistence that journals like October and members of the Frankfurt School are not to blame for this promulgation of what she terms “Simplified Art Copy”. [14] She uses the example of an employee at Bergdorf Goodman’s department store; the deferential treatment of the customer by the employee is an obligatory condition of employment. Her point, I think, is more to do with the translation aspect that Rule and Levine highlighted in their original paper: American curators and art historians translated the vastly complicated theories propounded by French theorists and writers and brought this strangely articulated style of writing to a wider audience, courtesy of journals such as October (which really appears to be the main culprit, according to Rule and Levine).

In Rosler’s opinion, the fault lies with the system in which the language operates: the art world. In her view, it is “structural” and while the “trader’s argot” is experiencing a wider dissemination, it is only symptomatic. [15] If this is the case, and e-flux, October, the Frankfurt School bear no culpability then my question is had October never existed, what would Art World Language look like today? Would it still resemble IAE/SAC, thus proving justifying Rosler’s theory that this vernacular is endemic, or would it resemble something else entirely?

Globalising Art Language

Part of this makes me wonder about the ways in which we’re encouraged to talk about art. It’s less emotional and more analytical. But if you haven’t been inducted into the ways of this mysterious lingo it tends to limit you somewhat to the most obvious of observations; it’s pretty, it’s colourful, it’s dark. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a description because it’s honest and faithfully represents your opinions on what you see. The language is simple but that doesn’t make the speaker simple, if you see what I mean.

“This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English. It is largely an export of the Anglophone world and can thank the global dominance of English for its current reach.”

Rule and Levine [16]

I think the point is that this style of language is specifically designed to exclude an audience that is less-artistically educated than its overlords. I’ve been to numerous gallery shows and never once been surprised by the tone and style of the text; it’s not a case of transmitting an idea to a broad audience, it’s a case of using an ostentatious fictional language to communicate to those fluent in it. It separates those who do from those who don’t. The Haves and the Have-Nots.

Conclusions?

Initially I thought I’d end on a quote, just for economy’s sake and in an ironic attempt to stick it to the anti-economy drive of these e-flux press releases:

“In the case of art language, more is more, and more is not enough.”

The Author [17]

References